Only for Three Months
They came in 1937: 4,000 Spanish children packed aboard an old cruise-liner, the largest single contingent of refugees ever to arrive on English shores and the first to consist solely of children. The ‘Basque children’, as they came to be known, had been sent so they might be spared the horrors of the Civil War then raging in Spain.
The Government did not want them. ‘The climate here will not suit them,’ said Prime Minister Baldwin. But this was just one month after the bombing of Guernica – the first town to be systematically destroyed by aerial bombardment. With the agony that had been inflicted upon that small Basque town still vivid in the public imagination, the British Government gave its reluctant permission for the children to come to England – with the stipulation that no public finance would ever be made available to support them here. None ever was.
‘Sólo por tres meses’ – ‘only be for three months’: that had been the constant cry on the quayside near Bilbao as worried parents said their final farewells and sent their children off to the unknown mercies of a foreign land. It was everyone’s expectation that their stay in England would be brief. It wasn’t, and, although most of them were to be reunited with their families eventually, if not in Spain then in exile elsewhere after the end of the Civil War, some 450 did not go back; many of them had nothing and nobody to return to.
This is the story of that remarkable evacuation, of the men and women who made it possible, and of those children who remained in England and saw three months stretch out into the best part of a lifetime.
New revised edition. Published May 2007.